Northampton Town 0 Oxford United 0 – match review, player ratings and highlights

KEY MOMENT: Oxford goalkeeper hauls down Paul Anderson but atones for his mistake by brilliantly saving Matty Taylor's penalty. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
KEY MOMENT: Oxford goalkeeper hauls down Paul Anderson but atones for his mistake by brilliantly saving Matty Taylor's penalty. Pictures: Kirsty Edmonds
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Though the general feeling of satisfaction was accompanied by a tinge of frustration following Saturday’s stalemate with Oxford, it is important to remember there was a time when, instead of coming out with an important point, the Cobblers would have surrendered to defeat with a whimper.

That in itself is a mark of the improvement this team have made over recent weeks and months, even if there were elements of Saturday’s contest that require more time and patience to get right.

Unlike the capitulations against Bradford and Bristol Rovers, Northampton are now a more robust, determined set of players and their new-found stubbornness shone through at Bolton last week and then again against Oxford to keep only their third clean sheet of 2017, although there was that lingering feeling of what might have been.

Indeed, they could have come away from Sixfields with all three points and a place better off in League One had Matty Taylor scored from 12 yards, but the fact they didn’t should not detract from the positives.

Just like Bolton the previous week and just like the three successive wins prior, Saturday’s draw against Oxford United was another step in the right direction and another step towards their ultimate goal this season: survival.

Admittedly, merely staying in the division is hardly the most ambitious of targets given the manner and style in which they romped to the title last term but after all the changes and all the uncertainty this season, it will represent a success.

It will also represent a new opportunity and a new base upon which they can build from.

Unlike last term, when they lost their manager and several key players, this time Town can continue the upward trend from one season to the next, because that is the direction they are heading under Justin Edinburgh: up.

It’s not as if the Cobblers are the finished article, far from it, but more pieces of the jigsaw are being put in place and with a summer to reshape the squad, they will have a better opportunity for a smoother campaign next time around.

There were two things highlighted during Saturday’s 90 minutes against Oxford: both the progress made under Edinburgh’s stewardship and the work that still needs doing.

The Cobblers are now much harder to beat and break down, as discovered by the U’s, but, equally, they still sometimes struggle for both quality and control in midfield, as well as composure in attack.

The absence of John-Joe O’Toole and Luke Williams did not help matters but the lack of midfield control has been a running theme this season and will need to be addressed in the summer, as will the need for a clinical goalscorer.

That said, failing to score in matches is something of a rarity for Northampton this season – Saturday was only the third time that’s happened in 2017 – so the fact they are now more organised in defence should only bode well.

Zander Diamond and Lewin Nyatanga led the defensive effort against Oxford as their partnership continues to blossom in Gabriel Zakuani’s absence, and whenever they were beaten, Adam Smith was there with two tremendous saves.

It’s not as if the Cobblers are the finished article, far from it, but more pieces of the jigsaw are being put in place and with a summer to reshape the squad, they will have a better opportunity for a smoother campaign next time around.

Smith is one of several players who have notably improved since Edinburgh’s appointment, and after his efforts at Bolton last week it is fair to say he’s enjoying his best run of form for over a year.

All in all, 0-0 was a fair reflection of an even game that only really kicked into life when a dull first 45 minutes was replaced by a more enterprising, open and generally entertaining second.

The Cobblers initially began well but despite getting into good positions, there was no final ball and no composure and it was no surprise when the opening period ended goalless.

Immediately the second-half began with more promise as both teams played with greater energy and tempo and looked to force the issue, the game only denied a winner by good goalkeeping and wasteful finishing as each side created - and missed - one golden opening amid many half chances.

Michael Appleton, to no one’s great shock, rued two points dropped afterwards and felt his side did ‘more than enough’ to take victory, even describing his side’s second-half performance as ‘outstanding’.

Outstanding is not a word that belonged in Saturday’s game, unless it was describing how outstandingly awful the first-half was, and whilst Oxford did create chances, they hardly arrived in their bucketloads.

Kane Hemmings had their best opportunity, shooting straight at Smith from six yards which came only moments after the Cobblers goalkeeper brilliantly tipped Joe Rothwell’s curler onto the crossbar.

Those incidents aside, Smith was rarely troubled and that’s now four times in a row that Appleton’s side have failed to even score in this fixture, losing three of those meetings 1-0.

So it ended in stalemate. It could have been more but the point takes Town to 50 for the season, a significant landmark in their bid to secure survival as soon as possible.

Other results were favourable too, further boosting Town’s prospects of being a League One outfit next season.

The Cobblers now have three difficult fixtures on the way but those games should each be viewed as a test and a chance to test themselves against the division’s best.

Because if they want to thrive at this level in the future, those are the games that will reveal more about where Edinburgh and his team currently stand.

How they rated...

Adam Smith - Was twice called into drastic action to preserve a point late on, superbly tipping onto the crossbar and then blocking from close-range. Currently enjoying his best form of the season by far... 8

Aaron Phillips - The latest in a long line of solid outings at right-back, not that he was overly troubled defensively. Delivered one delightful cross that almost brought the breakthrough. Was taken off for Moloney and now faces a battle to retain his spot on a regular basis... 7

Zander Diamond - Assured at the heart of defence, winning headers and positioning himself smartly to intervene when needed. Integral in keeping a clean sheet, something of a rarity this season... 8

Lewin Nyatanga - One of his finest displays in a Cobblers shirt. Brilliantly positioned to hack clear at least two dangerous crosses that looked destined to end in more for Oxford, and also put his body on the line to block goalbound shots. His improved performances have lessened the impact of Zakuani’s absence... 8 CHRON STAR MAN

David Buchanan - Most of Oxford’s threat seemed to come down the other side, even so he was a reliable presence whenever called upon... 7

Jak McCourt - Received his customary booking and wasn’t always accurate when in possession but, equally, did his job defensively to nullify Oxford’s threat through the middle... 7

Matty Taylor - Has been in good form of late but this was an off day. Unable to get his set-piece delivery right and was occasionally loose in possession. Little wrong with his penalty, although required more power to beat Eastwood... 6

Paul Anderson - Replaced O’Toole for his first start under Edinburgh. Did brilliantly to win the penalty, skipping round two players before being dragged down. Performed admirably in an unfamiliar role, only lacked the end product when it mattered... 7

Keshi Anderson - A frustrating afternoon, not for the want of trying. Sometimes too timid when he gets into good positions, highlighted early in Saturday’s game when he tamely shot straight at Eastwood having driven into the area. Looks a bit lightweight at times too... 5

Michael Smith - Set the tone from the front through his hard work as he tussled with Oxford’s back four all afternoon, winning headers and holding the ball up effectively. Missed two presentable chances to win it late on... 7

Marc Richards - His partnership with Smith causes headaches for any defence and it did again here. Could do no more than shoot or head off target when several half chances presented themselves. Might be back on penalty duty now... 7

Substitutes

Hiram Boateng - 6

Gregg Wylde - 6

Brendan Moloney - 7